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I love overdrive pedals. I have a bunch of them. But I realized that part of why I have so many has a lot to do with not really understanding how to set them up properly. I’d get an overdrive pedal because a demo I heard sounded great, or I loved how it was voiced. But when I’d get it home, it just wouldn’t sound quite right, so I’d put it in my “storage” area.

But as I got more experienced with setting up my amps, I similarly got to understand how to set up my overdrive pedals. And now that I have a bunch, I’ve got a variety of pedals to choose from to get the sound I want depending on my sets or my mood – okay, I admit it: It’s mostly due to my mood. 🙂

Admittedly, I did a lot of forum lurking as well to gain insights on setting up an overdrive, so a lot of what I’ll be sharing here comes from the things I’ve learned from others in addition to the stuff I’ve learned on my own.

What actually motivated me to write this was a conversation that I had with a friend. I asked him what he thought of a particular overdrive pedal, and he said he didn’t like the way it sounded. I looked at him a little puzzled and said, “Maybe you didn’t set it up right.” And that led me to say that not all overdrives are created equal, and you have to set them up according to how they work best. Truth be told, I haven’t spoken to him since that conversation, so I have no idea if he tried what I suggested. But in light of that, I decided to share my thoughts.


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Types of Overdrives – Not Necessarily What You Might Think

Before we get into the actual setup of an overdrive, I thought I’d go into a discussion about types of overdrives because how you set up an overdrive has a lot to do with the type of overdrive it is. No, this isn’t a discussion about circuit types or transparency. I suppose this could be related to the circuit type on which an overdrive is based, but I’m not that electrically savvy, so I’ll discuss this in more practical terms.

From my experience with having played several overdrives, I’ve found that they fall into roughly two different categories (mind you, these are my own terms): Interactive and Standalone. Interactive overdrives are meant to interact with the preamp of your amp, and together they produce the overdrive sound.

Standalone overdrives are typically purpose-built to mimic an amplifier, and though they can certainly be set up to be interactive, they can function just fine on their own in front of a clean amp.

Notice that I haven’t named any specific overdrive models. The reason why is that overdrives sound different with different amps. For instance, the EHX Soul Food sounds great as a standalone overdrive in front of my Fender amp. But it doesn’t sound nearly as good as a standalone overdrive in front of my Plexi-style amps, so I set it up as an interactive overdrive for those amps.

So the idea behind interactive vs. standalone has little to do with a specific type or model of overdrive; rather, it has to do with how the overdrive sounds with your amp.

Setting Up an Overdrive

I have two processes that I go through to set up an overdrive. At this point, I know all my pedals and whether they’re standalone or interactive, but I still follow the same processes for my different pedals when I set them up on my board. Also, if I come across or get a new overdrive, I first assume that it can be a standalone overdrive, then if I find it doesn’t work well that way, I’ll then set it up to be interactive. Here are the step-by-step processes I follow:

Setting Up a Standalone Overdrive

  1. Set up the amp:
    1. Clean
    2. Set EQ to work with your guitar
  2. Set guitar volume to the middle
  3. Guitar EQ where you want it
  4. Set overdrive with all knobs to the middle.
  5. Engage the overdrive and get it to unity gain (so that when you engage it, your volume doesn’t change), or to just get a small volume bump when the pedal’s engaged.
  6. Set the EQ on the overdrive
  7. Adjust the overdrive/gain knob to get your desired amount of distortion from the pedal.
    1. You will probably have to make adjustments to the level knob to maintain unity gain.
  8. Evaluate the sound and feel by playing around with chord progressions and licks.
    1. All the while, raise and lower your guitar volume to see how the pedal responds.
  9. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you dial in the right volume/sound/feel.
    1. If the volume, sound, and feel are fine for you, then you’re all set and ready to gig and the overdrive pedal will work fine as a standalone device.
    2. If the sound doesn’t feel “right,” chances are you’ll have to do some interaction with the preamp of your amp, so continue to the next section.

Setting Up an Interactive Overdrive

  1. Set up the amp
    1. Set Gain/Volume so the amp is at the edge of breakup.
      1. You’ll know it’s there when you turn up the guitar’s volume and the amp begins to distort, then cleans up when you turn it down. Also, if the guitar’s volume is set to the middle, if you strum hard it will break up.
    2. Set EQ on the amp
  2. Set your guitar volume to the middle
  3. Set guitar EQ when you like it
  4. Set overdrive with all knobs at their middle positions
  5. Engage the overdrive
    1. More likely than not, you’ll get a big volume boost when you engage at this level, so you’ll have to adjust both the overdrive’s level and amp’s volume/master knobs to get to the right volume.
      1. If you don’t have a master volume, turn down the overdrive’s volume/level knob to get to a management volume.
    2. Because you want to get both overdrive AND amp distortion, you’ll want to get a small volume bump when you engage the pedal as you want the amp to go over the edge of breakup.
  6. Now, play around.
    1. See how the combination responds to volume swells on your guitar.
    2. Make adjustments to the overdrive gain to get the right combination of pedal and amp distortion.

The Importance of EQ

Notice that I mention setting EQ on the amp, guitar, and overdrive pedal. Setting EQ is extremely important because it can be the difference-maker in your overall tone. There’s no “ideal” EQ setting. But for me as a rule of thumb, I want to get a rich, slightly bright tone that sits well in the mix and isn’t so warm that compared to the other instruments, won’t get washed out when we’re all playing together.

Also, for live gigs, I usually don’t touch my amp or pedal EQ once I get them set up. I use my guitar’s tone knob to adjust how warm or bright my sound to be.

Amp/Pedal Combinations

All that said, if you’ve followed the steps for setting up an interactive overdrive, and it still doesn’t sound right no matter what you do, then the pedal sucks. Just kidding. 🙂 Truth be told, I’ve found some overdrives work better with different amps. If you have another amp, then try the pedal out in front of it.

For instance, Paul Cochrane of “Tim” and “Timmy” pedal fame recommends not using the pedal in front of a Fender Blackface amp. I don’t have a blackface amp, so I had to take him at his word, but the Timmy works great in front of all my amps. For me, I will not use my venerable Ibanez TS-808 TubeScreamer in front of my vintage Marshall-style amps. It just doesn’t sound good to me, no matter how I set it up.

I think it’s because the TS produces a big midrange bump when engaged, and my amps are voiced bright, so it ends up sounding piercing like little ice picks on my eardrums. Even EQ adjustments don’t work for me. But in front of my Fender Hot Rod, the TS truly screams! My Hot Rod has the classic Fender “scooped” tone, so the predominant midrange of the TS fills in the mids.

What About Stacking Overdrives?

That gets a bit more complicated, but I’d follow the basic procedures above, treating the trailing pedal as the amp. In this case, I’d tend to set up the amp as clean and have the trailing pedal always on. There lots of ways to approach this as well. I know one guitarist that uses three at once to get his “sound.” More power to him! 🙂

But truth be told, I hate to dance on my board, so even though I will use a couple of overdrives, I only use one at a time depending on the kind of voicing I want. I also, don’t like complicate my sound finding the right balance of multiple overdrives. I just want to play. Granted, I could do a lot of pre-gig work to get that, but for me, employing the KISS theory works best.

Many people like to stack, and that’s great. Stevie Ray Vaughan used to use two TubeScreamers stacked together; one as an overdrive and one as a booster.

Wah-wah and Overdrive

If you don’t use a wah-wah pedal, then you can ignore this section. But I thought it would be important to add this to the mix, mainly because I’ve found that certain overdrives work better depending on where the wah-wah pedal is placed. Admittedly, my personal preference is to place the wah pedal after my overdrives. But there are a few boutique overdrive pedals that I have that work much better when the wah pedal is in front of them. Not sure why this is. Luckily, I only have a couple of pedals that act this way, so I know not to use a wah pedal with them if I have it set up after my overdrives.

Exploration

To close this out, I have to admit that I’m a bit of an overdrive junkie. I may not buy every single one that piques my interest, but I do check out new overdrives when I run across them. The great thing about overdrives is that they really are all different, even the knock-offs, so I’ll continue to explore overdrives. I never know what I might find. 🙂

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When Biting Is Good…

At this past Sunday night’s Mass, I got the rare opportunity to crank my Aracom VRX18 AND play it loud. This only happens if the church is packed (which it was), and we break out the full trap set (which only happens when both our drummer and bassist are present). So, knowing that both were going to be there, I planned out a much more lively set than usual. Based upon the plan, I decided to go with a classic Plexi/Les Paul combination; specifically my Aracom VRX18 Plexi clone and “Amber,” my R8 Les Paul.

Invariably, I use this particular combination because it has “bite.” At least, that’s what I call it. “Bite” to me is a bright tonal character when overdriving an amp; the highs are certainly present, but not so over the top that they’re like icepicks. They’re at that level where they provide the clarity and note separation yet are still balanced with the overall sound. But on top of that, “bite” ensures you break through the mix. There’s nothing like muddy tone to get you lost in a mix. With bite, you’ll never get lost in the mix.

AmberI can achieve that bite with just about any guitar I have, but there’s a certain magic that happens when I crank the VRX18 and play a Les Paul through it. And while that amp/guitar combination sounds fantastic, when you throw the incredible Jensen Jet Falcon speaker into the fray and combine its breakup characteristics into the output, the result is absolutely magical.

So in this case, biting is good!

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Marshall Class 5 AmplifierSummary: Class A, Plexi goodness in a low wattage amp that packs a punch despite its smaller size.Pros: Great, ballsy tone that’ll just make you smile

Cons: None.

Features (as tested):

  • Power: 5 watts
  • Preamp tubes: 2 x ECC83
  • Power tubes: 1 x EL84
  • Controls: Volume, Treble, Middle, Bass
  • Speaker: 1 x 10″ 16ohm Celestion G10F-15
  • Headphone output
  • Extension speaker output
  • Dimensions: 19.48″ x 16.34″ x 9.05″
  • Weight: 26.46 lbs

Price: < $400 Street

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ Even though I didn’t get to spend as much time as I’d like to play around with the amp, I was simply impressed by the tone that it delivers, and at a price point that makes it very difficult to ignore. While many low wattage amps can sound thin and tinny, the Class 5 with its generously-sized cabinet has a fantastic, rich tone.

On Low Wattage Amps

I love low wattage amps – those that are 10 Watts or less. I have a few. For years, people eschewed these super low wattage amps, and passed them off as mere practice tools. But I suspect they really didn’t understand what a super low wattage amp brings to the party. Low wattage amps such as the 5 Watt Fender Champ helped define the sound of rock and roll. Listen to classic rock tunes, and more likely than not, the venerable Fender Champ would be the amp providing the sound.

Today, more and more people are turning to low wattage amps – especially home recording enthusiasts, and even pros like Jeff Beck – to save their ears and to get crunch and grind at low volume levels. As a result of the increased demand, many manufacturers, boutique and mainstream alike, have responded and come up with a slew of low wattage amps. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, you have tons of selections, on the other hand; well, you have tons of selections. There are a lot of them out there and it’s tough to decide which way to go.

The shear amount of low wattage amps on the market is perhaps a big reason why Marshall waited so long to come out with its super own low wattage amp. Perhaps they were studying what the market responded to and what they could do to address what people might have fed back as improvements that could be made.

Enter the Marshall Class 5 amp. This amp was released in the UK near the middle of last year, and arrived here on our fair shores around November of last year. Amazingly enough, news about this amp has been relatively quiet. There hasn’t been all that much advertising that I’ve seen about this amp. The Marshall Haze amps have gotten lots of “rag” time, and the response to those amps has been generally positive. But I haven’t heard much about this amp other than user reviews. That’s too bad because after playing it, I have to say that I really dig it!

Classic, Killer Tone!

Is Marshall embarrassed about advertising such a low wattage amp? I certainly hope not, because I got a chance to play this amp today, and I just have two words to describe it: KICK ASS! Built upon the “Bluesbreaker”/Plexi pedigree, the Class 5 has all of that Plexi goodness in a low wattage combo. Make no mistake: The Class 5 packs a serious punch; maybe not maximum volume-wise (for a gig, this amp would need to be miked, but will provide plenty of stage volume), but if you’re looking for those classic Plexi tones in a low wattage solution, look no further!

Because I was in a shop, I only tested it with a single guitar: An Epiphone Les Paul Ultra. But the Class 5 delivered that cranked Les Paul through a cranked Marshall Plexi true to form. It was everything I expected to hear from a cranked Plexi, just at a lower volume. That really blew me away!

There’s really something special about that tone. My Aracom PLX18BB is a super-close replica of the Plexi 18, plus my good buddy has several Marshalls including an original JTM45 and Plexi 50, so I’m very familiar with that classic tone. While the Class 5 is just a tad grittier in its overdrive than its more powerful siblings (perhaps due to the new speaker), the rich harmonics and smooth overdrive delivered with “balls” with a gorgeous sustain is all there.

While it might seem from my description that this amp isn’t very loud, it’s plenty loud. You can even gig with it easily, even with the stock 10″ speaker which, by the way, has tons of volume and provides rich tone. I was actually expecting the amp to sound a bit thin due to the smaller speaker, but there was nothing thin-sounding about the amp.

Another reviewer mentioned turning the bass all the way down, because he thought it was flabby. I really didn’t detect a flabbiness to the bass, but I like a bright amp anyway so I had the bass EQ dialed down to about 8pm which is almost off.

All this tonal goodness is delivered by a 10″ speaker specially developed for the Class 5 by Celestion, the G10F-15. As expected, the 10″ really has an emphasis on the mid- to high-frequencies, but Marshall compensated for the lows by providing a spacious cabinet to act as a nice resonance chamber for the speaker. The result is a very balanced and smooth tone, if a little on the bright side. But bright is what Plexi’s are all about, and the Class 5 delivers on that swimmingly!

As far as my customary test clips go, sorry, this was a shop eval, so I didn’t record any. But if and when I get the amp, I’ll post some for sure!

Yikes! It’s Too Loud!

Hello… 5 Watts is loud. In fact the speaker’s SPL is rated at 97dB at 1 meter with a power rating of 15 Watts. People have complained that they can’t crank it up in the bedroom past 3 or 4. Yeah… welcome to the Non-Master-Volume club. But that’s the beauty of the Plexi in the first place! You need to saturate the power tubes as well as the preamp tubes to get that Plexi vibe. If you need to run this amp at bedroom levels, the best solution is to get an attenuator such as the Aracom PRX150-Pro.

I sincerely hope that Marshall doesn’t cave in to those complaining it’s too loud and add a master volume to the amp. To me, it doesn’t need and would take away from its vibe.

Made in the UK

This amp is constructed in the UK, amazingly enough. And what’s even more amazing is that it sells for less than $400! The shop I tested it at had it a retail price of $389! One would expect those kinds of prices to come from gear manufactured in Asia. But not this beauty. So to have a UK-made amp at this price point is truly remarkable! Then to get tone this good? OMG! Truly amazing!!!

Fit and Finish

This amp is extremely well made. The cabinet feels real solid, and nothing was loose. Apparently, earlier versions suffered from a buzz, but the unit I tested didn’t have that at all. In any case, I inspected the amp thoroughly – front and back-  and didn’t detect any finish flaws. The tolex was nicely molded down to the surface of the underlying wood, and there were no loose pieces of material. From what I could tell, 1/2″ ply was used for the cabinet, and that is good because I’ve found, at least from a purely qualitative perspective, that cabs built with 1/2″ thickness tend to resonate quite well. This obviously helps bolster the bottom end, and it does it nicely.

The rear of the cab is interesting in that it is partially closed with about a 4″ opening, covered by a metal grill. I suppose that this is so you don’t throw in the cable and accidentally puncture the speaker cone, but it may be purely aesthetic in nature. The rear grill is rather cool.

Overall Impression

I totally DIG this amp! It was fun cranking it up in the store this afternoon! Admittedly, the amp doesn’t really hit its sweet spot until the volume knob is about midway. But completely cranked up, it produces the tone I expect out of a Plexi! And even cranked up, it responds well to volume knob levels, so you can clean up the amp quite easily.

Compared to other super low wattage amps I’ve played, even my venerable ’58 Champ, this amp has tons of balls in stock configuration. With my Champ, I had to have an amp tech add a 1/4″ jack so I could run it into an external cab because the 8″ speaker really can be quite thin-sounding. But the Class 5 has enough balls and volume stock to not need any of that (though it’ll be fun to run this into an external cab anyway, which I plan to do).

Note that unlike other reviews, I really didn’t make mention of the amp being “Class A.” That’s a big deal with lots of folks, but to me, even though I understand the classification, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter to me is how the amp sounds, and it simply sounds killer. In my book, I couldn’t care less about an amp’s classification so long as I can get great tones out of it; and the Class 5 will certainly deliver on that!

As you might surmise, I’ll probably end up getting this amp. As if I need another! But it’s a great amp at a great price. That’s just plain tough to ignore! And note that this amp sounds so good stock to me that I really don’t see a need to swap out tubes unless they burn out (which they probably will considering I’ll be running the amp all out all the time 🙂 ).

Here are some cool video clips of the Class 5 in action:

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